Interns: Your Data Powerhouse

Today’s guest blog post is written by Katie Campbell, Data Migration Specialist, PatronManager. 

Data entry: someone’s gotta do it, and that someone is probably an intern. Interns are often on the front lines of data management, as they key in email lists, pledge payments, and address changes. However, if you simply hand the intern the keys to your database with no preparation, you may wish you had just entered the data yourself. Here are some strategies to make interns your powerful data-entry ally.

The Big Ask

Imagine someone places a huge pile of potatoes in front of you, asks you to peel them all, and walks away. You inwardly roll your eyes, wonder why someone else can’t do it and think this must be more potatoes than is actually needed. You grow resentful as a second pile of potatoes is added before you even finish the first. Your peeling becomes sloppy, leaving bits of skin behind. Your pace slows. The potato supply appears to be endless, so why rush?

Now imagine someone asks you to peel a huge pile of potatoes, but before they give you the potatoes, they explain that the potatoes are for your grandmother’s special family recipe. The dish will be served at her 90th birthday party at the end of the week. Grandma has been eating retirement home potatoes day in and day out, and boy will she be surprised that someone bothered to make her favorite dish for the party. For this particular dish, the potatoes need to be perfectly peeled, with no skin remaining, and ready to go in the pot by the end of the day tomorrow. Then — still no potatoes on the table — this person ASKS you if you are willing to do this big job. You’d say yes with gusto, wouldn’t you? You would peel those potatoes with precision and persist through the mundane job because it is now a labor of love.

To an intern, data entry can feel just as mundane and mindless as peeling potatoes. You may feel bad putting that huge pile of potatoes, I mean, sign-up sheets in front of the intern and asking them to enter the sign-ups into the database… but who else is going to do it? Everyone puts in their time to climb the ladder, right?

Believe it or not, a small amount of effort on your part can make this situation more like the scenario with grandma’s birthday potatoes. You just have to help the intern see the big picture.

This starts as far back as the interview. If you know that a significant portion of the intern’s time will be put toward data entry, be upfront about that. Explain why the data is needed and how it will be used. Do you have a big capital campaign going on? Is your goal this year to grow your mailing list? Try to point to the specific efforts that this data will touch. Explain how different departments will use the data. Explain that the only way for this data to be useful is for it to be carefully and cleanly entered. Now, ask if they are willing to do this work. You have established that data entry is an important task and it is a responsibility that falls squarely within their role as an intern.

Start At The End

Remember grandma’s special potatoes in our story? You were salivating over the memory of the recipe’s delicious flavor and texture as you peeled. Help your intern imagine the end goal of their data entry right from the start.

Reports are an excellent tool for this. Show them the reports you will pull using the data they enter and tell them who will use the reports. Show them the steps you go through to create an email blast list, a gala invitation list, and a year-end donor report. Seeing those physical manifestations of data entry may just be the motivation they need to change Calif. to a CA. After all, it is going to appear printed on an envelope in a few months.

Reports can also be used for quality control. If your intern has a dedicated log-in (and they should, for many reasons!), it is relatively simple to pull a report with all the records they modified and print it out for their review. When they look at that data in a different format, they will likely notice inconsistencies and typos they didn’t see when they entered it. They will also see the data in the format it will be shared with others on staff, and help them care about cleaning it up!

Finally, don’t underestimate the motivating power of a deadline. It drives home the fact that the data is actually necessary and useful. Compare these two ways of asking your intern to enter mailing addresses:

1. “It would be great to get these new addresses in.” This communicates nothing but a vague desire to keep your intern busy and get a stack of paper off your desk.

2. “We need all of these new addresses entered by November 30th to compile our holiday mailing list.” This tells your intern why the data needs to be entered and how it will function in your organization. It also makes their internship more valuable as a whole, as they are actually learning something about how an arts organization functions.

Set Them Up To Succeed

Before your intern ever logs into your database, there is a lot you can do to ensure they do the job well. Here are a few do’s and don’ts:

  • Do restrict the number of fields on the data entry page. This will streamline their process.
  • Don’t give ambiguous directions. Give both written and verbal cues on which data goes where, and don’t assume that what is obvious to you is obvious to them.
  • Do provide them with your organization’s database style guide, if you have one.
  • Don’t assume your field names are clear. Use the help text and field description to explicitly state what the field contains and how it is used.
  • Do implement validation rules and use pick lists instead of text fields wherever it is practical. This will help you avoid eight variations on Capital Campaign ‘17.

Shout It From The Conference Table

Back to your pile of potatoes! Besides salivating over the recipe itself, as you peel you’d probably be imagining something even better — a big kiss on the cheek from your grandma when she hears you were the one who peeled hundreds of potatoes to be served to all her party guests.

A kiss on the cheek would surely gross out your intern, but mentioning their efforts during a staff meeting will fill them with joy. Better yet, don’t acknowledge their work yourself — ask a staff member who is using the newly-entered data to do it. The intern will know their work is appreciated far and wide. Your marketing director: “We’re working on our holiday e-blast, which will be sent out to our full email list. Thank you to [intern name] for updating our list with all the summer festival attendees!” Or your development coordinator could stop by the intern’s desk and show them the charts and graphs they put together for the upcoming board meeting. They could thank the intern for entering all those pledge payments that are reflected in the report. The intern will feel like a valued member of the team and learn more about the day-to-day operations of your organization. They will return to their pile of potatoes and start peeling with gusto!

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